The Success of Open Source

“Open source is an experiment in social organization around a distinctive notion of property rights…Property in open source is configured fundamentally around the right to distribute, not the right to exclude…The essence of open source is not the software. It is the process by which the software is created.”

The Success of Open Source author and Professor of Political Science at U.C. Berkeley, Steven Weber, brings refreshingly non-technical perspective and insight into the world of open source and its paradigm. He sheds light on the motivation of individuals engaged in open source activity, on how governance–setting parameters for voluntary relationships among autonomous parties–motivates or de-motivates, on political and economic impact where open source is concerned, on voluntary participation and voluntary selection of tasks as an integral part of open source coordination (organization), and on how essential and accidental complexity is addressed.

According to Steven Weber, there are eight principles that capture the essence of what people do in the open source process as follows:

  1. Make it interesting and make sure it happens.
  2. Scratch an itch. (Understand what conditions individuals find that the benefits of participation exceed the costs.)
  3. Minimize how many times you have to reinvent the wheel. (There is no place for NIH!)
  4. Solve problems through parallel work processes whenever possible.
  5. Leverage the law of large numbers. (For example, consider the effective field testing Linux receives.)
  6. Document what you do. (See #s 3-5.)
  7. Release early and release often.
  8. Talk a lot. (That is, collaborate. No playing it close to the vest!)

Amidst this process, its motivations, etc., The Success of Open Source stuck with me particularly in the following ways:

  • Referring to model open source from the perspective of a political scientist: “The purpose of the model is not to represent reality; its purpose is to place in sharp relief particular elements of reality so we can look at the model from different angles, tweak it in various directions, generalize it, and then come back to reality with a deeper understanding of what happens there.” This is a good definition for modeling and those who model.
  • Eric Raymond: “Fun is…a sign of peak efficiency. Painful development environments waste labor and creativity; they extract huge hidden costs in time, money, and opportunity.”
  • Software code as art (expression); software process as science (reproducible)
  • The following progression in the open source narcotic can lead to job offers, VC money, opportunities to work with other greats: ego gratification >> peer recognition >> reputation >> proven worth…
  • A growing abundance of computing power and bandwidth cause scarce resources like effort, intelligence and energy to become more valuable and in shorter supply. That in abundance depends upon that in which is not in abundance (i.e. classic supply and demand).
  • “Network good” – “The value of a piece of software to any user increases as more people use the software.”
  • Forking vs. coordination: “Too much coordination can get you stuck working in old and inefficient architecture.” Nevertheless making a strategic decision to abandon such an architecture can be quite difficult “because it means placing at risk all sorts of sunk costs and existing competitive advantages.”
  • Software architecture should drive the organization about it. For example, consider the consequences of Conway’s Law: The structure of the (technical) system mirrors the structure of the organization that developed it. There may be expected, perhaps constrictive, communication paths, but there may also be silos of knowledge.
  • While familiar with the concept of flaming (public condemnation), the concept of shunning (refusing to cooperate) was intriguing. I like the Troll Cap application of gentle shunning by 37signals.
  • Is your brand (e.g. “Brand You”) a “valuable proxy for a promise of a quality performance?”
  • Enabling distributed innovation by empowering people to experiment, creating effective feedback loops, and developing signal intelligence by recognizing legitimate signals–valuable bits of information–amidst noise.
  • Exploration of new possibilities vs. exploitation of old certainties–risk of obsolescence if overly focused on refinement and iterative improvement
  • Sometimes visionaries must rule the day (over pragmatists)!
  • “As information about what users want and need to do becomes more fine-grained, individually differentiated, and hard to communicate, the incentives grow to shift the locus of innovation closer to them by empowering them with freely modifiable tools.”

I gather from my read that Steven Weber will publish again, and I look forward to his next effort. In the meantime, I look forward to tapping into a greater percentage of human creative motivation amongst my colleagues through the lesson I’ve learned from reading The Success of Open Source.

Update 12/1/2008: For more of my book reviews and to see what else is in my book library (i.e. just the business-related or software-related non-fiction therein), please visit my Books page.